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Will a total beginner be OK in a lang. program at a Chinese university?


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Hi Everyone,

I would like to take Mandarin Chinese lessons at a university in China, but I have no prior knowledge of Chinese. Technically, I am able to move to China at any time, but I want to make sure I am prepared enough and know what I'm getting myself into! How much formal study and/or self-study should I have before I take that step?

I'm sure a lot of it depends on the individual person, but I read an article recently which advised people to master the introductory level in their home country before going abroad. I just barely moved to a new town that has a couple universities nearby offering Chinese courses. However, I am not currently a student and the semester has already started, so if I want to take a formal course I would need to wait several months.

I looked at Yunnan Normal University's website the other day and was thinking that I'd like to sign up for beginning courses there. I'm considering doing one-on-one classes which could start any time, if I remember correctly. (Would that be too overwhelming?). If I take group classes, then I would be starting March 1st. Would it be a crazy idea to just do some self-study along with hiring univ. students as tutors and then go to China? Do you think it's necessary to take a formal class here (in the U.S.) too?

I'd love to hear your experiences. If you started lessons in China as a complete beginner, what was it like? How difficult was it to adjust?

Thanks in advance for your responses! I was excited to find this forum -- it's already been very helpful.

-- Kasandrea

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there is usually a total beginners class. i had a few friends in the 'total beginners class' while i was studying in China. they managed to keep up and did learn but im not really sure how because from the first day everything is spoken in chinese. it is clearly possible though. and after a few weeks you'll probably get the hang of things and find the class time productive enough.

besides, most of the intial weeks will be spent learning pinyin (a romanised method of writing chinese) and how to pronounce the chinese vowel and consonant sounds. i imagine you'll simply see a pinyin word on the board and be made to pronounce it several times with the class. as for the new words the textbook you use should have an english translation. the ones we used in xi'an did (the japanese and korean students had to rely heavily on their dictionaries). once you know pinyin you should be able to sound out the new words just by reading it.

i personally think you should be able to get by without an initial program. but be prepared for a fair bit of work in the first semester. you dont want to fall behind because the beginners course is pretty fast paced. i quite like the idea of the beginners course because i should help with your pronounciation. thats the main thing that is hard to master with self-study because you have no one to correct your pronounciation. you can develop a few bad pronounciation habits that can take a while (or never) to get ironed out.

a little self study before you go cant hurt though. it should save you from being possibly over-whelmed in the first few lessons. a lot of students will think "WTF?! its all in chinese?!" and convince themselves that they wont be able to cope (and then start to skip many lessons slowly falling behind the class until its impossible to catch back up).

learn pinyin and see if you can read up on anything about the basic composition of characters (radicals etc.). perhaps try and learn a few before you go so you get the hang of drawing them (i would think 10 to 20 or so would be enough).

anyway your idea sounds fine and i can assure you you're about to have a great time.

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The school I am at (Shanxi Normal University) (http://www.sxtu.edu.cn/english/index.html) will take total beginners, and the Chinese teachers are essentially bilingual. There are very few foreign students so it will be a very small group or one-on-one. I think they are pretty flexible and will start you almost anytime. Heck, if you have a BA I could probably help you get a job here teaching HS and you could get acclimated to the language while you do a little work.

Because of the size of the place you can pick up Chinese pretty quickly...much more quickly than if you took an introduction class in the States. Everyone that comes here seems to learn really fast if they apply themselves. You want to find friends that speak little to no English. If your Chinese friends speak better English than you do Chinese, the default language will always be English...making learning Chinese slower.

You could get a hold of the pimsleur recordings, or logon to www.Chinesepod.com (which has free lessons you can download and play on an MP3/Ipod. If you select Archive, there you can download the lessons for free.

You probably don't want to mess with writing for the first few months anyhow. You need to get the sounds down (study the Pinyin) and work on your listening, really hammer yourself as much as possible (several hours a day if possible) to get the sounds of the language into your head.

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Having just gone through the BNU registration and test process, I don't recommend coming here if you're a total beginner. That's not to say you'll be the only one - you won't - but the whole red-tape situation is very confusing.

There are people who help you if you're Korean, Japanese or Indonesian, but otherwise you're on your own. I took the option of an airport pickup and was lucky that a flight from Jakarta arrived shortly afterwards. Some of the students were very friendly and I tagged along with them (and their mentor from BNU) who took us through the process. The mentor's most useful skill was pushing into bank queues otherwise I reckon I'd have to wait all bloody day to cash my travellers cheques.

Pick somewhere either very used to dealing with western foreigners (such as BLCU - also in Beijing) or somewhere where you're the only westerner so people will latch on to you and help you do everything. BNU sits in the middle and it's easy to be totally bewildered by it all ;)

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I didn't mean everyone will ignore you. I meant that those groups have people who work for BNU and will find you, speak your language, and follow you while you go to the bank, go to the registration, sign on in the accommodation etc. If you speak English people will help you when you ask, no problem, but they won't hold your hand and help you push to the front of queues at Bank of China etc. That's a useful skill ;)

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Actually my company helps foreign students do all of those things that you mentioned in the post above from application through to post-registration, setting up bank accounts etc. for the not-exorbitant fee of US$280. I have had quite a few chinese-forums regulars use this service because, as you say, it can be quite bewildering during the first few weeks unless you are at BLCU (which is a waste of money in my perfectly honest opinion).

To the original poster, you can come here as a total beginner. Before I came here I studied some private classes in Tokyo, paying a small fortune in fact. It turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. I learnt far more at a fraction of the cost just being in China, going to classes and having basic conversations with the locals. For the effort you have to put in studying Chinese from abroad I think it just isn't worth the hassle (and in that I would include students studying Chinese at a foreign university - certainly doing it the hard way!)

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It is certainly true that just being in China is far better than studying in a university in the States, or in Japan for that matter. Choosing a school like the one in Shanxi, which charges something like $2400 a year including apartment, utilities (minus phone) and full tuition. Most people will tell you that the classes will help you because it gives you a structure and homework and all to keep you focused. Trying to find a little income on the side to suppliment things is nice. Other living expenses amount to about 50 or 100 dollars a month depending on how often you go to KFC.

Bing able to...rather having to get out and use your Chinese every single day is what makes a difference. This is where you want to be careful where you go. Going to southern China like you mentioned earlier (Nanning? Kunming?) will put you in places where Putonghua (standard Chinese) is not so common off campus. Same is true for the South East. If the $250 covers getting your student visa, gets you picket up and a train ticket to where you are going, then it is worth it. Otherwise, you probably could get the hands on care you need from the school. It is a problem free situation.

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Couldn't agree more with you about the importance of speaking putonghua every day outside class - which is why it is generally disingeneous to go south.

As for what is covered in the US$280, it is for advice on management of the entire application process (as you may know the universities are generally horrible at replying to emails), ensuring the student safely receives a correct JW-202 with which they get the visa. Then once the student arrives we meet them at the plane / train station, check them into the dormitory (we reserve a room for them in advance based upon their instructions), take them through the registration process (which can be bewildering at some of the universities outside Beijing), take them through the medical test procedure at the local hospital, help them set up a bank account and explain how to send money from abroad, help them buy a mobile phone (making sure they are not ripped off on handsets, IP cards or SIM cards), and generally make sure they are comfortable in their new environment by giving an orientation of the locality.

We did meet people at the airport in Beijing in the past, but this adds to the costs and most people commented that it was unnecessary so we removed it.

Of course there are some plusses to doing it all yourself but if you just want to get everything sorted quickly and concentrate on study I think its worthwhile.

(sorry didn't mean to turn this into an advert but I felt I had to reply to your US$280 comment above....)

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take them through the registration process (which can be bewildering at some of the universities outside Beijing)

Having spoken to a number of new starts at both BNU and BLCU over the last few days, it seems fair to say that the registration process is bewildering anywhere, with 'nobody tells you anything' seeming to be the common theme.

Having said that, once you've got through the initial hassles (and speaking some Chinese will only make those less of a hassle, not eliminate them) then you'll be fine.

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you can start with no mandarin study at all. most unis/schools should have a basic

course for beginners.

the schools that i've looked into in kunming all had adequate english help in the

registration office. managed to get through registration at yunnan normal in a couple

days with no language ability at all. (they even sent one of the teachers with me to

open an account at BofC, and to register my apartment residence at PSB).

also no trouble registering at ELCEC. office staff handled this in half an hour (including

a new 202 form), and got my passport/residence permit back in under a week.

depending on where you go and the particular situation, $250 US is exorbinant for

something you can do on your own with a little perserverance. really not much

involved; fill out a few forms (in english), pay tuition, get a health exam (uni will

have new students go to the clinic as a group), register with PSB (not required if staying

in uni housing, turn in passport/health cert/photos/PSB form to the school visa office

(they handle residence permits), pick up schedule and buy books. most of this

is handled on one floor of one building at YNNU, or in one office at ELCEC.

beijing i'm sure is much different, but in kunming $250 is equal to over half a semester's

tuition, or 4-6 months rent, or 20 bottles of Jack Daniels.......

and all the schools here provide free pickup from the airport. of course the taxi fare from

the airport to any of the unis will be under 30 yuan.

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All fair comments. However the fee we charge is for covering the whole process from managing the application process from abroad through the registration process (which is not necessarily as simple as filling out a few forms) and giving advice on issues like getting the best dorm rooms and getting into the most appropriate classes. We have had a few students use our service because the universities have not replied to their emails during the application process or have not sent JW-202s. As one of the posters mentioned above, generally the universities' management of these processes is appalling considering they do it every few months. For the students we helped in Dalian (DUFL) there were no English registration forms, there was no-one to help the students do the medical examination, no-one to help them set up bank accounts and explain how to remit money etc. And this is a university with over 700 students per semester. When you really get into the boonies of Harbin or Jiamusi the problems escalate.

Also bear in mind that new students doing stuff on their own inevitably get ripped off, whether it is paying over the odds for taxis from the airport (I have heard one person got charged 700 from Beijing airport to city centre), paying face value for international calliing cards, buying mobile phones and SIM cards, even booking hotel accommodation on their stopover. In my opinion nobody gets away completely scot free (except the most canny of Scots maybe) so in one sense it is a false economy.

In addition the tuition charged by the universities outside of Beijing / Shanghai is lower, as is accommodation, so the extra fees you pay for this service are comfortably covered in the first few months and you end up learning far more Chinese.

However I can see that the alternative of 20 bottles of whisky would also be tempting :) I guess it depends on the priorities of each individual student.

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You mentioned that there some schools with very few foreigners?

I'm looking to start in Beijing in the winter. I'm not sure which school yet. I'll probably start in a beginner class though I'm very concerned with having a class that will move too slow. I will probably study quite a lot more than the average student and am hoping for a class that will help me learn as quick as possible.

I know about that really expensive school though I'm not sure if I can go there. A school that doesn't cater to foreigners and requires me to really use Chinese as much as possible would be great. I might even be willing to consider not using pinyin.

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I'd recommend BNU. There are western students here of course (we're everywhere!) but the main populations seem to me Korean, Japanese and Indonesian in that order. The former two groups, although I've already noticed that their pronunciation is terrible, they study very hard and learn the new words quickly.

I am here because I want that type of structured environment. I've tried the "ad-hoc" way (it got me to the level I am) in London.

However, if you have specific needs and can get a study visa (pick, say, BNU or BLCU and just drop out or never turn up, I guess) then go private. I've no knowledge in that area though.

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